Music: Remembering Ian Campbell, a folk icon in tights

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How It’s New York:  Written with the wistful reflection of an expatriate in the Big Apple
How It’s Irish:   Traditional music knows no boundaries.

Tony Horswill recalls meeting Ian Campbell, folk music icon, and wearing tights at a Birmingham banquet.

I remember my stint on the medieval banquet circuit as the time I first learnt how to put on tights. The thrill was somewhat muted though, as just as the lady organizer of the event was showing me her technique behind a rack of inauthentic medieval frocks, her jealous husband burst in.But that’s another story.

 

The real story is that is where I met the great folk music icon Ian Campbell who unfortunately left us late last year. He cut an impressive figure with his flowing purple robe and white beard in his role of “Lord Chamberlain”. The pseudo-historical medieval banquet pantomime  gave employment in the lead-up to Christmas to those traditional musicians with a certain fortitude who needed the work. This particular incarnation in the early ’80s was at a faux castle called Himley Hall in the “Black Country” region of the English Midlands, named for its pioneering work in early industrial pollution. The banquet season provided a similarly unhealthy experience. The closest thing in the US would be the Renaissance Fair but this form was decidedly more alcoholic, low-brow and bawdy. It was essentially an excuse to “dress up while pissed up” and abuse the entertainers.

Ian took it all in his stride. The feeble plot of the night as I remember it revolved around Ian appointing a Lord and Lady for the night ( humor of course ensued as all chaps and wenches were forced to swear fealty and beg indulgence on their frequent trips to the toilets, nay garderobes) but his real function was minstrel and bailiff in equal parts. 

All of the musicians of course knew Ian or knew of him from his leadership in the folk revival in Birmingham in the 1960’s 

His reputation among traditional and folk musicians was legendary, but his fame to me and the wider public at that time was for being the father of Ali and Robin Campbell in the groundbreaking multi-racial band UB40. They were not just one of the rare examples of a successful fusion of pop and reggae but were also had a Top Ten hit with a protest song for God’s sake – “I am a One in Ten” like the UB40 moniker referred to the unemployment of the late ’70s. On the surface of it these two aspects of Ian had nothing in common, but in retrospect they are both part of the his legacy. For Ian, folk music was more than the record company genre has become – it embodied a belief in humanity, community and a striving for social justice.

Getting back to the “men in tights” gig, one unusual aspect of it was that it featured acts from the working men’s club circuit, more typically associated with the north of England. A favorite of Ian’s, mine and fellow minstrels was the comedian Boothby Graffoe who had a novel way of finishing his act which was to wrap himself from head to toe in heavy duty packing tape and then try and maintain his composure as he crooned “Moon River” while ripping it all off again.However the most spectacularly inappropriate act booked at the castle (for reasons which will become evident) and the source of one of my favorite Ian Campbell stories was a one-man acrobat/tumbler from somewhere up north.  His  problems started when he adopted a particularly precarious balancing position on top of a set of blocks and rollers prompting an astonishing hail of bread rolls, apples and whatever the mob could lay hands on as they channeled their inner medieval peasant hurling garbage at the stocks. When an old lady was struck with one of these missiles Ian took it upon himself to confront the ugly ringleader. Despite Ian’s polite and careful reasoning to the oaf, he remained cheerfully oblivious to the “bigger picture”, and his riposte whilst pointing to the dim-witted posse around him was:

“It didn’t hit her mate. It was these w**kers. I don’t miss – I nailed the bloke every f**king shot”.

Ian’s recounting of this tale had us in stitches for days. Ian was a very funny man and a natural raconteur and storyteller as we appreciated when the musicians/comedians/bruised tumblers got to hang out together in the “outer hall” whilst the troglodytes were temporarily pacified with greasy lamb chops and cheap mead. One now bittersweet memory of such occasion was when some music rag had reported him dead and he got to deliver the line “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated”, and he delivered it perfectly. On rare, delightful occasions we persuaded him to sing for our little private party.

 

Another one of Birmingham’s heroes has passed on. 

Epilogue: While I did occasionally drift into antiquated pseudo-medieval language, note that “chaps” and “wenches” is 100% current up-to-date Black Country speak. You gotta love those yam –yams! 

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